April 2014

Tacos o Lonches

I don’t care what anyone says. San Antonio is not South Texas. South Texas is the Rio Grande Valley. And if you have to ask why we call it “The Valley,” when geographically it’s not, then I can’t help you. It’s an inside thing. Something only the Valley-ites know. Sorry. But, I will let you in on a little secret. We’re close to some of the best tacos and lonches you’ll ever eat in your life. If you happen to be in South Texas and want to put my claim to the test, then make your way to Las Flores, Mexico (some people call it Nuevo Progreso, but if you’ve been in the Valley as long as I have then it’s Las Flores). It’s a tourist town that borders the U.S. city of Progreso. You can park your car on the U.S. side and walk across if you don’t feel comfortable crossing your vehicle.

Benito Juárez is the main street that runs through Las Flores. Large stores, small stands, nice restaurants, dilapidated chuck wagons, pottery, shoe shiners, and beggars line the street of Benito Juárez. There are many food wagons and the owners constantly ask, not if you want tacos or lonches, but what kind and how many. They’ll take your order before you even sit down. Before you even know where their stand is. On a warm day in December, I remember it was warm because I was complaining about not having to wear the jacket I had recently taken out of layaway, I was with my father and a man approached us asking what we wanted on our lonches. I didn’t even know that I wanted lonches. He was smooth. Anyway, we accepted his offer and then followed him for nearly half a block. How many McDonalds employees take your order in the parking lot before you get off your car? None. I think that’s what I love the most about this place. You feel important, needed, and highly solicited. And no other place makes me feel as wanted like Sonora Street.

There are at least nine tacos y lonches stands on this street and they are all next to each other. In one long row of chuck wagons with men and women in aprons standing next to them trying to get your attention. For some reason, I really can’t remember why, I’ve made it a custom to only go to one stand, El No Que No. It just so happens to be the second to the last establishment which means that I must walk past, reject, and disappoint a lot of people before getting there. My friends don’t like being the person burdened with the task of telling the aprons that we’re not interested in their stand, but I, especially after a few drinks, relish in the event.

Have you seen the movie The Godfather? Of course you have; who hasn’t. Anyway, I’m not sure which part it is, I believe it’s part two, but there is a scene where a man in a suit walks through the market and people give him food and kiss his ring and, probably out of fear, seem pleased to see him. That’s the way I feel when I walk down Sonora Street. I smile and say thank you for your affection while waving them off. They come up to me, with welcoming arms, and mention that they’ve been saving a seat for me all day. I smile politely, pat them on the shoulder, and tell them maybe next time.

La Güera, I don’t know her name but she dyes her hair blonde hence La Güera, is the owner of El No Que No and receives me outside her stand, big smile on her face, and always says that it’s good to see me again. Sometimes I actually believe she remembers me. Sometimes. “Lonches o tacos?” She immediately asks once I’ve sat down on at the plastic table with coca-cola labels on it. A tarp is the only thing dividing her clients from the sun above and there are no walls between her stand and the others.

I usually decide on lonches because they are delicious and I’ve never found anything like them in the States. The lonche is a baked bread that looks like a miniature football. They slice the side of it and insert the contents much like they do at Subway. Except these aren’t tasteless sandwiches. The bread is toasted over a hot pan after it has been glazed with butter, or some type of oil, leaving it nice and crispy on the outside yet soft on the inside. There is a sweetness to the bread too. That quality alone has been what I’ve never found in the U.S. I’m not saying that it’s like eating sweet bread from the bakery, because it’s not that kind of sweet. The only way I can describe it is by telling you how it tastes when combined with bistec/beef, grilled unions, cilantro, tomato, cabbage, avocado, lime juice and delicious green salsa.

Upon biting the bread the sweetness of it hits your taste buds tricking them for a moment. Then the green salsa, which in my opinion is better than the red one, comes flooding in and the chile instantly awakens the buds from what they thought would be a sweet treat. Confused the taste buds try to accept the sweet and, depending how much you put, the burning deliciousness when the salty bistec resets them and prepares your mouth all over again for a dynamic second bite. If you can’t taste it then you’ve never been, or it’s been too long. Either way, make the trip.

The tacos are just as good except they don’t have the hint of sweetness. Still, if you plan to drink alcohol in Las Flores it might behoove you to order a mixta plate. Which comes with two lonches and three tacos. See despite how good the lonches are they have a tendency of ruining a good buzz. If I eat a full plate it’s difficult to continue drinking, and to fully live the Las Flores experience a few drinks are expected. That and purchasing gum, rosaries (even if you’re not catholic), trinkets, frog refrigerator magnets, and pirated movies from the many citizens trying to support their family.

El No Que No does not carry alcoholic beverages, but La Güera, or whoever is working that day (usually it’ll be her), will be more than willing to go out and get your drinks. However, if you’re feeling up to it, and a little brave, then I recommend going yourself and visiting the bar close to La Güera’s strand. The bar is down Sonora Street and called El Escondido (Escondido means hidden). It isn’t too far off the beaten path, but it isn’t exactly a tourist spot. One time, and only once, I ventured into that bar by myself. I was in Las Flores with a woman, who would later fall in love with me and me for her, and we were eating lonches with La Güera, and my date asked me if I wanted another beer. I said yes. She proceeded to stand and I, of course, told her that I’d go and get it, and since I didn’t want to be away from her for very long I choose to go into the first bar I saw even though it was off the main street.

Unfortunately, due to my inebriation, I was well into the bar when I realized that it might not have been a good idea. The two men at the pool table stopped playing, and looked at me while resting their heads on their cues. One of them said something to the other and they both sort of snickered. There was an older gentleman sitting by himself at a table in front of the bar openly smoking marijuana, and a young guy with a Longhorns cap sat at the bar sipping something out of a coffee mug. I had already gone this far, and I wasn’t about to walk back to my date, empty handed, thus showing, before our relationship even began, that I was a coward. So I walk up the bar, slammed my hand on it, and ask for two Coronas. Well, maybe I didn’t slam my hand. The Bartender took his eyes off the TV, and looked at me.

“Dos Coronas,” I said, in the most Mexican way I could.

“Tres dólar.”

I set the three dollars on the bar and rested against it with my left elbow. I wanted to show them that I was not afraid, and I wanted a clear line of sight to the exit and the two pool players. The bartender set two Modelos on the bar, and took my three dollars. I don’t mind drinking Modelo, but I had or ordered Coronas. My date wanted a Corona. I looked at the bartender who had sat back down, and then I looked towards the two guys who hadn’t stopped looking at me. Then, in a sobering moment, decided that Modelo was a better pick anyway. Upon returning to my date I told her that they didn’t have Coronas. About two years later I told her the truth. She left me shortly after…but for other reasons.

Whether or not you make it to the bar is no big deal (let me know if you do make it, though ) as long as you try the lonches at El No Que No. Or anywhere in Las Flores really. They’re all delicious…most of the time. So order your lonches and pay La Guera. She’ll tell you to come back again and you’ll say you will and she’ll say she’ll be waiting. After that, wander around and drop money into beggar’s hands. Buy some nopales from the older gentleman whose shirt doesn’t fit him anymore, because he’s too thin. Talk to the winter Texans and smile at the girls who want to do your nails. Treat the barefooted kids to a coke and the left over lonches you didn’t finish, because you want to continue drinking. Above all, feel good about yourself when you go. You see there are always reasons why not to feel important or needed, or highly solicited. And sometimes, even if it’s just from a lady trying to sell you food, it’s good to feel wanted.

—Thomas de la Cruz

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